Preservation Magazine, Summer 2020

The Capital's Gain: Inside the High-Profile Work of Architect Constance Lai

Some of Washington, D.C.’s most recognizable sites—the United States Capitol Building and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, for example—have been preserved with the help of architect Constance Lai, historic preservation manager at general contractor Grunley Construction. Lai also empowers the next generation of preservationists through regular speaking engagements, volunteer work, and service as a board member of numerous architecture and preservation organizations. We recently spoke with her about her career.

Portrait of Constance Lai

photo by: Scott Suchman

Constance Lai on the roof of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building, a National Trust easement property in Washington, D.C. Another of her projects, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, is in the background.

How did you get your start in historic preservation?

I have a professional degree in architecture and a master’s in architectural studies. I moved to San Francisco in 2002 and started working for [architecture and preservation firm] Page & Turnbull. One of my first tasks was to go into the archives and research the history and photographs of buildings we were working on. Right away, I realized I could combine my interests as an architect with my love of history. Eventually I moved to D.C. I joined Grunley Construction in 2009 and have been there ever since.

What are some of your career highlights?

I led the construction-side survey team for the earthquake repairs for the Washington Monument, which meant setting the protocols for surveying, labeling, documenting, photographing, and cataloging all the stone conditions from top to bottom. I also spent five years [partly at a previous job] working on the modernization of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

In 2017, I received the Richard Morris Hunt Prize, a fellowship for an exchange program between French and American architects, and spent five weeks in France. It was wonderful to see the similarities and differences in our preservation practices. That exchange is something I’m passionate about, so I joined the board of the AIA Architects Foundation [the prize administrator] to help the continuation of the program.

What are you currently working on?

Right now, I’m working on laser-cleaning the dome of the Jefferson Memorial and doing a complete exterior restoration of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Building.

How has the pandemic affected your work?

I was the guinea pig for giving a virtual talk for the D.C. Chapter of the Association of Preservation Technology. It’s been our first foray into the virtual world. Normally, we get to see each other in person—with site tours, lectures, and happy hours—but with this pandemic, we said it’s the perfect time to try something new and learn new tech platforms.

What innovations in preservation most excite you?

The ability to laser-scan existing buildings is incredible. It allows us to understand buildings in a three-dimensional way that we’ve never been able to do before. We can understand the exact dimensions in the spaces between the floors and find cavities in the walls that we didn’t know existed, which helps us see how we can insert new infrastructure, like mechanical or electrical systems.

You do a lot to promote diversity in the architecture and preservation fields. Why is that important to you?

The responsibility of architects is to create spaces where our society can live, work, and play. It’s important that the people who are designing these spaces reflect the population that they’re designing for. America is very diverse. We need to have those same faces in our profession, because it makes what we do in providing these spaces to the public much more relevant. That’s our goal: to make spaces that are relevant to the communities that are using them.

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Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

Join us for PastForward Online 2020, the historic preservation event of the year, October 27-30, 2020.

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